[Working backward from the year 2000 toward America’s beginnings.]
Like television later, and like radio at the same time, but to a greater degree, movies were America’s greatest ambassadors and propagandists. Foreigners often mistook American films for reality, and if this sometimes led them to think it was still a land of cowboys and Indians, it also led them to think that this was the land where working people lived in mansions, and rich girls married poor boys, and the streets were paved with gold.
America had long been the land of opportunity for the poor, the dispossessed, the politically oppressed, the persecuted minorities all over the world. Until immigration was severely restricted in the 1920s, in the face of the massive postwar dislocations in Europe that threatened to overwhelm the country with penniless émigrés, it had been the safe haven, the escape from societies where it seemed nothing would ever change. American films seemed to demonstrate that those stories were true: After all, you saw it with your own eyes!
The French created the cinema, but the industry was soon dominated by American films. Hollywood filmmakers developed sound films (The Jazz Singer was released in 1927, and that was the beginning of the end for silent pictures), Hollywood directors (such as D.W. Griffith) developed what is called film grammar, creative and financial geniuses such as Walt Disney showed how to merchandise animated films, studios produced films by the hundreds, and American movie stars and starlets became famous all around the world.
Hollywood became Hollywood because it was initially a friendly place, and because it was located in a moderate climate, with reliable sunlight and varied scenery, and because once D. W. Griffith’s acting troupe, working for Biograph, successfully filmed a few movies there, other movie-makers relocated there to get away from the East Coast (well, actually to get farther away from Thomas Edison, who owned certain movie-making patents).
It began, in a way, with the storefront theaters called nickelodeons. (An Odeon was a small indoor theater in ancient Greece and, in modern usage, the name of a hall for musical or dramatic performances. And, since admission price was a nickel….) Many of the men who came to head movie studio began as the owners of nickelodeons. Among them: Samuel Goldwyn, William Fox, Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zukor, Louis B. Mayer and the four Warner Brothers (Harry, Albert, Samuel, and Jack).
Major studios kept thousands of people on salary — actors, producers, directors, writers, stunt men, craftsmen and -women, and technicians. They owned or leased Movie Ranches in rural Southern California for location shooting of westerns and other large scale genre films. And they owned hundreds of theaters in cities and towns across the nation. By the mid-1940s, the studios were producing more than a film a day, all year long, for a weekly audience of 90 million Americans — Westerns, slapstick comedies, musicals, animated cartoons, biographical films. Once it found its feet in the 1920s, the American film industry grossed more money every year than that of any other country.
The Golden Age of Hollywood was ended by federal antitrust action that destroyed the studio system, and television, which brought the screen inside people’s homes. But by that time, American films had conquered the world.